We Trade With Ants: Picking Up The Pieces

The latest in a series of short stories about talking ants. In this story, protagonist Jeff Boudreaux finds his landlord George having a heart attack. Jeff intervenes and afterwards discovers a mysterious device in George's garage...

We Trade With Ants: Picking Up The Pieces

This is the latest entry in a series of short stories. The last entry was posted in February at The Browser, but I've decided to just keep things simple and post the rest on my blog here. Many thanks to Uri Bram at the Browser for running the first two stories.

I have since re-posted the first two stories on my own blog, you can read them here to catch up. Our last story ended with protagonist George Demoupoulous successfully making first contact with an intelligent alien species – black carpenter ants, as it turns out – only to suffer a heart attack before he could publish. The next story takes place immediately afterwards.

Picking Up the Pieces

“George?” said Jeff Boudreaux. “Are you here? I heard a crash.”

George’s tenant stood aghast at the sight before him. The kind but eccentric old man lay sprawled out on the floor of the workshop. Jeff got down on his knees and noted his landlord was still breathing but clearly in distress.

Jeff fumbled for his phone. He couldn’t remember his own passcode, and his fingers lost all dexterity, pressing numbers at random. After a few interminable moments of desperation, the screen suddenly changed. A large red button labeled “SOS” appeared with the label: “Swipe to call Emergency services.”

Jeff gave a silent word of thanks to whatever engineer had anticipated this situation, swiped the screen, and dialed 911. Before he knew it, a dispatcher calmly started walking him through first aid procedures and announced that the paramedics were on their way.

*   *   *

Jeff Boudreaux pulled back into the driveway after a long stay at the hospital. George had barely survived the heart attack and was being kept over concerns about severe cardiac damage. Jeff had hoped he’d be able to reach out to a family member, but apparently the only person listed in George’s emergency contacts was… Jeff. He was the only friend the old man had in the world right now.

Jeff stepped into the garage that doubled as George’s workshop. I really hope the old man didn’t leave the stove on or anything. He was just about to unlock the front door and make sure that everything was in order when he noticed a persistent blinking light from somewhere in the garage.

What’s this? Thought Jeff as he strolled over to the table with the funny little box on it. The display read: “21 messages.”

“Might as well take the old man’s answering machine messages down,” Jeff said to himself. He found a legal pad and a pen, sat down at the desk, and hit the button labeled “messages.”

The screen lit up with a series of strange symbols and letters. As Jeff was puzzling over them, his eyes landed on the large hand-written notebook resting next to the box. The title read: How to Talk to Ants, by George Demoupoulous, First Edition

Ants? Thought Jeff, amused. I guess this is what George spent all his time doing

Jeff recalled an article he’d read once about a brilliant schizophrenic man who had built an entire computer operating system from scratch, dubbed TempleOS. In addition to all the usual functions of an operating system, it included all manner of strange mystical features by which the user could communicate directly with God. Apparently George had a similarly delusional hobby.

Jeff had been George’s tenant for the last three years, but had never really gotten to know the old man very well. Mr. Demoupoulous was decent as far as landlords go – always happy to repair things when they got broken, not to mention his convenient old-man penchant for forgetting the monthly rent once a year or so.

I really shouldn’t be touching this stuff, Jeff thought to himself as he flipped open the cover of the notebook. He was immediately greeted by large, bold letters that took up the entire page:


Well, thought Jeff. The least I can do is humor the old man for a few pages…

*   *   *

Jeff visited George in the hospital every day, but Mr. Demoupoulous was never the same ever again. The old man would pass in and out of consciousness, but was too weak to speak in full sentences. Jeff began to worry that the end could come any time.

I need to call somebody, thought Jeff. But who? He’d looked all over George’s house. No phone numbers, no addresses. At first Jeff had surmised that the man must have been a childless loner with no family at all, until he discovered a single weathered photograph in the old man’s nightstand drawer. Next to it was a small painted wooden icon inscribed with Greek letters. Jeff had brought both to the hospital with him on the first day, placing them on the table next to George’s bed.

Jeff looked at the photo; it depicted a young girl playing in the grass next to a pile of dirt. It was badly faded, with no obvious cues as to exactly how old it was. Was this a wife, a sister, a daughter, a grand-daughter? No name was written on the photograph, and certainly no phone number. Jeff sighed and turned to the icon. It depicted a female saint holding a cross in one hand and some kind of bottle in the other. I wonder who that’s supposed to be? The Virgin Mary? Jeff strained for any clues he could find, but half-remembered Sunday school lessons from his lapsed Catholic upbringing yielded nothing.

He looked at the Greek letters again when something finally clicked. George Demopoulos. Greek.

Jeff pulled out his phone and googled, “Greek Orthodox.” Eventually he found a number and dialed it.

“You’ve reached the Nativity of the Theotokos Greek Orthodox Church. This is Father Nikolas speaking.”

“Hello Father,” said Jeff. “You don’t know me, and this is a bit of a long story, but I’m sitting next to a dying man. I think there’s a chance you might know who he is, but in any case I’m pretty sure he needs the last rites.”

Father Nikolas arrived an hour later. Six foot two, clad in black robes, with white hair down to his shoulders and a puffy beard falling nearly to his stomach, Jeff’s first impression of the cleric was something like Santa Claus with vaguely heavy metal vibes.

“George Demoupoulous,” said the priest, laying a hand on the old man’s sleeping head. “It’s been a long time.”

“You knew him?” said Jeff.

“Yes, though not well, and only when I was a boy. My late father knew him better than I did.”

“Does he have any family?” asked Jeff.

Fr. Nikolas nodded. “I think so, and I’ll make some calls. But first thing’s first,” the priest set his satchel down and carefully pulled out a small glass container of oil, along with a service book.

“Is that for the last rites?” asked Jeff.

“We call it the rite of Holy Unction, but yes,” said the priest, as he opened his service book and began to chant softly.

Jeff stood quietly while the priest administered the sacrament. Afterwards Jeff handed him the photograph of the young girl. “Do you recognize her?”

Father Nikolas took the photo and scratched his beard. “No, I’m afraid not,” he said. “I’ll let you know if I find any relatives. Please call me immediately if George’s situation worsens.”

Jeff said goodbye to the priest, but said nothing about the ants or of George’s invention. Something about the messages he had read on the device was just a little too disturbing.

Where are you, big speaker?

We are afraid.

We need big speaker.

Come back. Come back. Come back.

Jeff woke suddenly with a start. 

Did I fall asleep in my chair? How long have I been sitting here? It was the middle of the night, and the hospital was eerily silent. Jeff felt someone staring at him, and was shocked to see it was George, wide awake, sitting fully upright. 

“George? Are you alright? Can you talk?”

“You read my book,” said George. It wasn’t a question.

“Uh, yeah. I did. George, are you okay?”

“You must finish my work, Jeff. You must teach them. Protect them.”

“Who, George? Who do I have to protect?”

“The little speakers. It may already be too late. My time is up.”

Jeff started tearing up. “I don’t know how, George!”

“Yes you do. You’re a smart boy. A good boy. And you’ll do it, because God commands it. Promise me.”

Jeff told himself he was only playing along for George’s sake, but found himself getting wrapped up in the delusional reverie nevertheless.

“I promise.” Jeff whispered.

“Louder.” said George, insistently.

“I promise!” shouted Jeff.

At the sound of his own voice, Jeff woke up again, half-mumbling, half-shouting. Hours had passed. George lay asleep in the bed. Bright daylight streamed through the windows.

Was it a dream? Thought Jeff. It had to be. Doctors and nurses were in and out every few hours, poking and prodding, with machines constantly beeping and alarming every time George’s oxygen levels dipped by half a percent. When George had spoken to him in the night, everything had been unnaturally quiet and desolate.

George’s words echoed in Jeff’s mind: Protect the little speakers.

Jeff pondered his nocturnal oath and turned it over in his mind. He thought about the book again, How to talk to Ants, First Edition. A wild trip to be sure, but detailed in the extreme. George clearly believed he was talking with ants, and had Jeff been a little more credulous he might have even believed it himself. 

How crazy would that be, Jeff thought. Making a world-changing breakthrough, only to kick the bucket at the last minute before you could tell another soul?

Then he had another thought: what a sad way to spend the last decade of your life, chasing this insane dream. I hope it made him happy, at the very least.

Protect the little speakers, said the memory of George’s voice, as if in reply.

Protect the-

Jeff woke up again, to the sound of his phone vibrating. Six missed calls. 

Oof. Get it together, Jeff, he thought to himself.

“Jeff? This is Father Nikolas. Please forgive me, but I think I accidentally touched off some Demoupolous family drama. I was calling around last night trying to track down relatives, and it seems old George was not on good terms with his kin. At least one of them is headed over there right now in a storm. I sincerely hope you don’t get caught in the middle of things. Call me if there’s trouble.”

“What’s going on?” asked Jeff.

“First I tracked down an Alexander Demoupoulous–not a parishioner–who was cordial enough right up until I mentioned the name ‘George,’ at which point he immediately hung up. This happened a few more times with a few other relatives, sometimes with cursing. The last one is the one I’m most worried about, however.”

“How did that one go?”

“Good, at first. She was very polite and when I asked her if she knew old George she replied that he was her Grandfather and she remembered him fondly. I thought that was a good sign, so then I mentioned that he was currently dying and was in the hospital, and that’s when the yelling started.”

“She yelled at you?”

“Not exactly. I think what happened was she dropped the phone. I heard a lot of shouting from multiple people, and some doors slamming. I got a text five minutes later from her number that said, ‘I’m on my way.’ She hasn’t answered since.”

Jeff heard footsteps coming down the hallway, accompanied by an angry female voice arguing with someone over the phone. “I’ll have to call you back, Father, someone’s coming.”

As the footsteps grew louder and then stopped, Jeff looked at George’s photo of the unknown girl. His eyes shifted to the icon, when suddenly a nearly-forgotten elective semester in classics came rushing back to him. The Greek letters fell together, and he read the saint’s name: Αναστασία. 


The door swung open and Anastasia Demoupoulous barged into the room. She was furious.

*   *   *

The first thing Jeff noticed about Anastasia was how short she was. The second thing he noticed was how scary she was when she was mad, despite her diminutive size. Jeff was glad he wasn’t the person on the other end of her cell phone.

“You had no right to hide this from me!” she said. “You told me he’d been dead for years! No, I don’t care what Yiayia says. He’s my own grandfather and now I have to find out he’s dying from some random stranger?”

She tossed her phone into her purse and ran to George’s bedside, clutching his hand. The old man didn’t respond.

Her eyes turned to Jeff. “Forgive me. Who are you?”

Jeff extended his hand. “I’m, uh, the random stranger, I guess. Jeff Boudreaux. I’m George’s tenant.”

“How long has he been like this?” She asked.

“Couple of days. He had a heart attack, I found him a few minutes into it. Doctors told me to prepare for the worst and have been asking me all about end of life care and funeral arrangements and on and on. At one point I lied and said I was his grandson so they wouldn’t kick me out and leave him here alone by himself. Honestly I’ve just been stalling for time ever since until we could contact his family.”

“Well, you’ve certainly done more for him than my own parents.” said Anastasia, nearly growling. Then she softened - “That’s not fair, they–I’ll spare you the stupid family history. Suffice it to say that I loved my grandfather very much, but everybody else wanted nothing to do with him. And it’s not likely they didn’t have good reasons. But whatever. I haven’t seen him in ten years and until a few hours ago I sincerely believed he was long since dead.”

Anastasia flew into action. After a few hours arguing with doctors the decision was made to unhook George from all the machines and move him into home hospice. Three days later Anastasia moved into George’s house, and Jeff moved back into the accessory dwelling unit. Together she and Jeff took up George’s daily care.

George died peacefully in his sleep three weeks later. A decade-old will turned up in the old man’s safe deposit box which left the house and all of George’s estate to Anastasia.

Father Nikolas presided over a simple funeral, attended by Jeff and Anastasia alone. After the burial service, the two sat down together over coffee.

“So what happens now?” asked Jeff.

“Well, I was living with my parents before, and I’m not the kind of girl to look a gift house in the mouth. Say hello to your new landlady.”

“What will you do for work? You gonna raise the rent on me?”

“Relax, you’ve earned your keep and then some. I’ll just keep doing the same thing I was doing before: work-from-home tutoring, teaching foreign languages to rich kids with high-strung parents. What about you?”

“Well, I just defended my Master's thesis, and I was planning on starting a PhD program in Ohio State for the fall session.”

Anastasia nodded. Then she gripped her coffee mug, looked down, and bit her lip.

“I know it’s a lot to ask, but please don’t commit to moving just yet. I need your help with something important. I’ll waive your rent for as long as you choose to stay.”

“That’s very kind of you, but I can’t put my whole life on hold like that,” said Jeff.

Anastasia looked up from her coffee. “Jeff, I think George’s ‘little speakers’ are real.”